Koreans held at Beijing airport

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Koreans held at Beijing airport

Earlier this month, a group of about 20 Korean retirees in their 50s and 60s at the Beijing Capital International Airport were isolated for several rounds of inspection for no apparent reason.

The group was on its way to Incheon International Airport from Moscow, but as they passed through luggage inspection in Beijing, they were told by authorities that the X-ray machine to scan their bags was broken.

In a separate area, authorities had them place their luggage on a table and inspected each one. When one of the travelers tried to close his bag after it was inspected, an official told him to leave it open without giving a reason.

An airport official even confiscated a bottle of wine purchased from the duty free store at the airport in Moscow and told him, “You can pick it up a month later.”

The group went through four rounds of luggage inspection.

“We were regular people, mostly retirees and housewives in their 50s and 60s, and we trembled in fear for an hour,” said of the group members. “When we were moved to a different location, there were officials accompanying us in front and behind, and they kept checking our numbers. It felt like we were being treated as criminals. I thought, ‘this must be the retaliation I have only heard of until now.’”

To protest the deployment of the U.S.-led antimissile system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad), a decision reached by Washington and Seoul in July last year, China has levied unofficial sanctions against Korea.

“While China has always been thorough in luggage inspections,” one agent at a tourist agency said, “it’s excessive to undergo four rounds. If coming from Moscow, there won’t be some terror threat that would warrant such thorough luggage inspection.”

In March, Chinese authorities ordered the suspension of Lotte Mart stores in the country and also tightened its rules on tourist visa issuance for Koreans. According to some, other measures may include the suppression of Korean scholarship.

A Korean engineering professor of a well-known graduate school has faced difficulty since last summer getting his work published by international academic journals acknowledged by the Science Citation Index. The academic journals that have rejected his work all had Chinese editors.

“One paper was rejected by three places,” the professor said, “and the fourth, which was a European journal with an editor who was not Chinese, accepted it right away.”

The professor added, “If the editor says the work is not suitable for the journal, I would have nothing to say. But since the situation kept on repeating itself, I couldn’t help but think that the Thaad backlash had spread to this field. I went to a related academic conference recently and other professors also shared similar experiences.”

Even if China ends the sanctions now, some say the repercussions will continue to echo.

“It is a serious problem that China’s excessive sanctions are leading to Koreans’ victim mentality and suspicions against Chinese,” said Kim Han-kwon, a professor at Korea National Diplomatic Academy. “It takes a long time to recuperate from such feelings of hostility, so the two countries need to hurry to undertake a two-track measure that will separate the Thaad tension from continuing with societal and economic cooperation.”

But so far, Beijing has responded to the Korean government’s protests by saying that Chinese authorities have not implemented such measures and that they merely reflect public sentiment. This has blurred the line of agency, making it difficult to discern state-sanctioned actions from individual acts of discrimination, especially when such acts take place at state-regulated facilities such as an airport.

Whether the Korean tourists who were stopped and searched indeed faced such retaliatory measures is not known. The JoongAng Ilbo emailed the airport’s passenger service team about the situation but has not received a response.

“There have been no reports of similar cases,” a Korean Foreign Ministry official said, “but we are always keeping a watch on the situation.”

BY YOO JEE-HYE [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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